We Are Our Brains

Everything we think, do, and refrain from doing is determined by the brain. The construction of this fantastic machine determines our potential, our limitations, and our characters; we are our brains. Brain research is no longer confined to looking for the cause of brain disorders; it also seeks to establish why we are as we are. It is a quest to find ourselves.

— D.F. Swaab, We Are Our Brains

One could almost say that the brain is a biochemical factory, with neurons and glia as both bureaucracy and workers. Yet, even such a literary reduction wouldn’t really get at the truth of the matter. Jacob Moleschott (1822– 1893) was one of the first to observe that what this factory with all its billions of neurons and trillions of glia produces is what we aptly term the ‘mind’. This process of production from life to death entails: electrical activity, the release of chemical messengers, changes in cell contacts, and alterations in the activity of nerve cells.1

Many of the new technologies as imaging, electromagnetic and biochemical are being used to both study and heal certain long standing malfunctions and neurological disorders in the brain, as well as invasive electro and magnetic therapies applied to patients suffering diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and depression. (Yet, I interject, that these technologies present us a double-edged sword that while on the one hand they can be used to heal they can also be used by nefarious governments to manipulate and harm both external enemies and internal citizenry.)

D.F. Swaab’s book We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s is a gentle introduction for the non-scientist into both the sciences and technologies that have shaped our current understanding of the brain. I wish sometimes I’d spent more time studying the neurosciences years ago, but realize that most of what we now know has made much of even the basic knowledge of ten years ago obsolete. Why? The technological apparatuses have effected an almost overnight revolution in our understanding not of the brain itself, but of the patterns and mappings of the real time processes going on in the brain. What neuroscientists are seeing now with many of these new technologies – and, it is still at an early stage – is the way brain works in real time. This is no small feat. What is difficult is the hit and miss framing of the questions we ask of the brain while we discover what these maps tell us. It was that first physician Hippocrates himself that once said:

It should be widely known that the brain, and the brain alone, is the source of our pleasures, joys, laughter, and amusement, as well as our sorrow, pain, grief, and tears. It is especially the organ we use to think and learn, see and hear, to distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, and the pleasant from the unpleasant. The brain is also the seat of madness and delirium, of the fears and terrors which assail us, often at night, but sometimes even during the day, of insomnia, sleepwalking, elusive thoughts, forgetfulness, and eccentricities.

These neuroscientists following Hippocrates lead are slowly building up a map of the brain that tells us just exactly what many of these processes are communicating below the threshold of consciousness. And that is one of the keys, most of the work of the brain is going on below the threshold all the time: the brain processes experience long before the conscious mind ever does, and filters, data mines, computes, analyses, and produces both those sensations and thoughts that our conscious mind in its illusionary self-confidence thinks is its own self-reflecting power. Most of modern psychology and philosophy was predicated on the notion that something must be going on below consciousness or the ground, if only we could dip down into that mysterious realm of the unconscious or the groundless ground we’d be able to understand once and for all the darkest mysteries of existence. What these speculative psychologists and philosophers lacked was the actual technologies and apparatuses to do just that. It took a combination of the sciences and engineering (or practical sciences) to finally view the actual workings of the unconscious mind – the physical processes of the brain in movement.

I want go into all the arguments of the book. Just one quote at the end:

When I started work as a student doctor in 1966, brain research was the domain of a few mavericks who were regarded with considerable suspicion by society at large. These days, the great social significance and huge potential of this field appear to be universally recognized, and neuroscience has become a top priority at universities and research institutes all over the world, where hundreds of thousands of scientists explore a wide range of technologies. The highly complex research techniques call for specialized scientists, who must work in multidisciplinary teams to achieve new insights. Networks are becoming ever larger and more international, as can be seen from the growing number of authors and affiliations cited at the top of publications.

In the years to come, insights into the molecular biology of brain disorders will produce new objectives for therapeutic strategies. Stimulation electrodes implanted at precise sites in the brain are being used to treat not just Parkinson’s disease but also obsessive-compulsive disorders. Their effect is also being studied in such areas as minimally conscious states, obesity, addiction, and depression. As with all effective therapies, there are side effects. And these can be considerable in the case of Parkinson’s patients undergoing stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus, ranging from obesity to changes in character, impulsive behavior, and even suicide. Psychosis, lack of sexual inhibition, and compulsive gambling have also been reported. Researchers are looking at the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation on depression and tinnitus. This technique is also used to prevent hallucinations among schizophrenic patients. It’s still too new for its side effects to be known. Neuroprosthetics— devices that can replace sensory systems— are becoming ever more sophisticated. One paraplegic had a plate with electrodes implanted into his cerebral cortex that allowed him to control a computer mouse and a prosthetic arm with his mind. Visual prostheses are being developed for the blind. Attempts are being made to carry out repairs in the brain and spinal cord by implanting fragments of fetal brain tissue or stem cells and by initiating gene therapy. (ibid.)

What I find fascinating in the above passage is that obviously the commercial world sees profits in such work or the funding of all these institutions would not be made available: the new neurosciences are becoming Big Business and a part of the Global-Industrial-System. Swaab like many well meaning neuroscientists idealize the future hope of these sciences without ever looking into both the economic and military or intelligence use of these technologies for war, aggression, and commercial/military profit. The second is that as he suggests we seem hell bent on experimenting with peoples lives and in many cases our promise to do good produces dire consequences in actual human degradation (“As with all effective therapies, there are side effects. And these can be considerable in the case…”). And, as usual, in the back of my own mind is all the money being fed into the transhumanist wager, as well as the military use of such new technologies of power and manipulation. The Brain may be our own personal last frontier, and we may discover that the emptiness of Self and the illusion of free-will have been stripped from us forever, but once such knowledge becomes widely accepted what then? In a society so obsessed with obesity, depression, beauty, and immortality will be willingly give up our sense of freedom and allow these new invasive technologies to be used by experts from government and private enterprise to enslave us through sheer pleasure and aesthetic compliance? Swaab himself asks: “When will governments finally develop that much-needed long-term vision to ensure healthier brains for generations to come?” He forgets that most governments in the “free” world are controlled by the dictates of the market place and their cronies, which we all know is profit driven on a short term basis and could care less about the human equation accept as it benefits the stockholders. So governments in the West have no long term goals, just the self-perpetuating myth of capitalism on steroids. Sad, but true!

1. Swaab, D.F. (2014-01-07). We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s (Kindle Locations 314-316). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

15 thoughts on “We Are Our Brains

  1. I get the impression that these books, derived from the findings of neuroscience, are coming out by the truck load. Instead of saying, “are we our brains?” how different would the arguments be if we asked, “are we our minds?”

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    • Ah, in that distinction between “brains” and “minds” hangs the whole philosophical mind fuck, doesn’t it? Neuroscientists opt for “brain” while philosophers opt for “mind”. Is their a third way? Between them the battle goes on… their both metaphors: make your own choice. For many Brain equal Mind, for others Brain not-equal Mind. I guess it depends on which side of the fence you situate the questions.

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  2. I like Bakker’s update of the Cartesian formulation via Sartre and Nietzsche: It thinks, therefore “I” am.

    “We” are not our brains. “We”, quite simply, aren’t.

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      • It is, therefore it thinks.

        It was walking through town when it noticed another it standing to the side. It approached the it and said: “Hi!” The it replied: “Hi.”

        That would turn into that Sameness and bland reporting that all those difference hounds were trying to overcome to begin with.

        It said to it: “It was doing something with “It” today!” Then It replied: “Yes, It saw it cry afterwards when crying is no longer necessary for us Its, is it?”

        hahha…. the inanity of it all…

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  3. The functional self is an embodiment of which the brain is a necessary but not sufficient part. Sure, no brain, no experience. But no input, no experience as well. How that input works matters. Beings with insect eyes, human eyes, cyborg eyes will each experience vision differently, even if each has the same baseline brain. In a rather short time each of those beings will have a different brain. Input modifies brain.

    How’s this: (The temporary assemblies known as) we (become functional) are (inclusionary form of TAKA) our (specified portion of the interdependent, functional aggregates) brains.

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    • Yea, I don’t think anyone would disagree with you there. For me it’s not that the self doesn’t exist: it’s that it is functional and heuristic (i.e., it has no essence). And, most of these brain scientists see consciousness as multiple: the aspect we term in say intentional phenomenology as first-person-singular is a heuristic model of self-reflective consciousness, etc.) The point of this exercise is not that the Self doesn’t exist, it just no longer exists as many in philosophy or religion might think. I think it ultimately is a final attack started with let’s say Freud that the Self does not exist separate from the Brain. It’s a final attack on the metaphysical notion of the Soul, etc.

      As far as poetry, writing, normal folk psychology language goes we will probably continue to use these terms interminably. I don’t think one could persuade the majority to relinquish this grand illusion at any price. We see religion and beliefs in God(s) thriving in our time all around the planet. And, in the case of the Muslim Religion we see it dominating both the religious and political spectrums. One could say the same of most Christian, or even Jewish faiths as well.

      Being an atheist is probably for me to realize I’m in a minority and that this intellectual elitism is rather out of touch with the main stream propaganda systems of religious practice. Even atheist have a rigid hardline faction that seem almost religious in their zealotry which I fine just as deplorable. What to do?

      The only thing about what is going on with Brain research is just like what happened with Astronomy in Galileo’s time: the invention of new tools or apparatuses that allow us to see this inner cosmos just like he saw the outer cosmos at a different level. Which opened many new questions and speculations. Since Brain Research is truly only in its infancy with these new tools we have to be a little reserved in our estimation of the value and outcome of this research.

      My fears are mainly with government and military abuse of these findings more than the fruits of health improvement. I’m reading Michio Kaku’s latests: The Frontiers of the Mind which describes all the positive aspects of this research but never goes into either the technocommercial abuses (i.e., googles investment in advert-mind-manipulation technics for consumer behavior – it’s investment in robotics and new brain companies), nor in the DARPA uses of this technology which on the surface present a rosy picture of helping soldier’s but in the fine print show a future of drones, robots, cyborg warriors, etc.

      I think the complexity of all these issues is almost too much for any one individual to grasp anymore. And with the moneyed pressure of think tanks, NGO’s, Foundations, etc. where hundreds of billions of dollars are funding much of this toward commercial products in medical, technologic, military, etc. one begins to feel overwhelmed.

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    • You say: “The functional self is an embodiment of which the brain is a necessary but not sufficient part.”

      Problem here is that no output, no Self. The Brain is all. Even input comes first through the brain not the self, the self is output or temporary product of the brain, a function, or mechanism used for specific purpose and then is dissipated and vanishes the moment the temporary function of which it was a part is finished and no longer needed. The Self is not a stable object, it has no essence, and is neither process or substance: it is a pure functional mechanism whose purpose (if there is one) is a production of the brain not the other way round. The brain existed long before humans ever had a sense of Self, or even before Self was needed in the course of evolution.

      I know you want to save the Self whether as part of some assemblage (Deleuze, Latour?) etc. But the self is neither construct, artifact, nor entity. It is an ephemeral product of the brain’s functional processes. Nothing else. I, too, had a hard time accepting this, and for a long while bought into Lacan, Badiou, and Zizek and the notion of the voidic vacuum theory of self-reflecting negativity. But after a good thorough study of these new neurosciences I’m seeing that most of out notions of intentionality are great fictions, but just that “fictions” that no longer hold water in the truth of physical manifestations. It’s hard to accept that most of our philosophical heritage is now being put into question: but that’s for me a truth I’m daring to accept and understand. I do not take this lightly either, being out of the Marxist mold. It’s a tough thing to accept. Even such philosopher’s of the Mind cannot fully accept the implications of some of the more solvent aspects, he, too, wants to hold onto intentionality. So there are a lot of questions to be resolved. I’m only at the beginning of my studies in this area.

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      • You write: “I know you want to save the Self whether as part of some assemblage (Deleuze, Latour?) etc. But the self is neither construct, artifact, nor entity. It is an ephemeral product of the brain’s functional processes”

        If I gave that impression that I want to “save the self” then I was unclear. Everything is an ephemeral product of functional processes. The functional processes are ephemeral products themselves. Constructs, artifacts and entities are ephemeral products. The brain is an ephemeral product.

        The genealogy of my thinking is Buddhist, specifically it’s idea of Emptiness. So I use words like “self” and “assembly” in the sense of the Buddhist Prasangika Madhyamika usage. I apologize for not making that clear. I sometimes hope that my language will be clear enough as is. My rather poor rendition of the concept appears here http://atomicgeography.com/2013/11/06/negating-emptiness/ and several other posts.

        As it happens I’ve real almost no Deleuze, Latour. My impression from what little I have read, and reading other’s discussions of them is agreement with your idea that they want to save the self.

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      • No… it was your use of the term ‘assembly’ – the notion of assemblage was used by Deleuze and Guattari, and later in Latour. Nothing to do with saving the self, etc.

        And, yes, if you are using Buddhistic terminology you should always remember that on western philosophical blogs not everyone will automatically make that connection. The Buddhistic notion of emptiness is different from what I’m referring to in this sense. I can see how that mistake could be made. Buddhism is viable in what I’d term metaphysics, but this has nothing to do with physical sciences and the pragmatic testing of processes that converge on the production of self that the neurosciences is now revealing.

        I’m not disparaging Buddhism, and in fact have for over 38 years practiced zazen and been a part of Master Chul Woo Jung’s Kung Fu mantis styles: a hard style that goes back three thousand years. The fusion of Taoist and Buddhist notions in this unique realm of thought and physic has guided many of my deeper quests to understand. The term Sunyata would be the appropriate term that you are qualifying for ’emptiness’. But this is a pragmatic experiential knowing not qualified by abstract thought per se. Any Master would see that our discussion of such things and the experience itself are two distinct knowledges. To experience and to think are not one, but two; yet, this is not a dualism, it is two avenues the body takes in apprehending the one reality. Just like Samsara/Nirvana are not concepts, they are experiences of reality under different states of affairs. But I want argue the fine points of a thousand years of practice. I’m sure you are well aware of this.

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  4. Hi Noir!

    Have you read Marge Peircy’s ‘Woman on the edge of time’? I found it excellent – even energising and very much on the topic of misused technologies of brain control and the future of humanity.

    Andre.

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    • Yes, I’ve read most of Peircy’s works… first started with her poetry years ago. But the book you mention is one of those thought provoking books that stays with you like a signpost toward all this weirdness we see around us now. Consuelo and her conversations keep churning in the head… 🙂

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